Zod Wallop, William Browning Spencer

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Zod Wallop, William Browning Spencer, St. Martin’s Press, 1995, ISBN 0-312-13629-3, $21.95, 277pp.

The inevitable comparison that Zod Wallop brings to mind is to Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs. Both novels revolve around a children’s book that is directly affecting the lives of the other characters. The approach that the two authors take to the subject is quite different–Carroll, even in his first novel, drifts around the fantastic, never quite making it real, preferring to define his characters by the world of which we know. Spencer embraces the fantastic, so much so that it is hard sometimes to tell where the “real” world and the fantastic world come together. If one thinks of this balance between the real and the fantastic as a see-saw, in Carroll’s world the heavier child is the real world, and vice versa in Spencer.

Harry Gainsborough wrote books for his daughter, Amy. His books were so good that they were published and became well-loved children’s books across the world. But when his daughter drowns in a freak accident, he enters into a depression so severe that his agent checks him into a psychiatric ward. In the hospital, the therapist suggests that he write another book–hoping that the creative process will lift him out of despair. Instead, the book that he writes, Zod Wallop, is a bleak, dark novel–the kind of children’s book that the Wicked Witch of the West would have written.

Zod Wallop is also Harry Gainsborough’s most popular novel, more popular even than Bocky and the Moon Weasels or The Bathtub Wars. Children the world over love Zod Wallop, but none more so than Raymond Story, who read it while a patient at the Harwood Psychiatric Hospital. Raymond, who almost drowned when he was 8, sees his near-death experience as a link to the author of Zod Wallop. Raymond, who when he came across the first draft of Zod Wallop, destroyed the dark, original version that Harry had written. Or had he just hidden the book?

Lastly, William Browning Spencer’s Zod Wallop is about the drug, Ecknazine, administered by Marlin Tate to a group of patients at the Harwood Psychiatric who had extremely rich imaginative lives. The goal of Tate’s experiment was to enable telepathic communication, but the drug did something else, something much more strange than telepathy. The drug enabled Zod Wallop to come to life.

Spencer’s novel is a complex knot of these three stories, moving at a reckless pace towards the conclusion. Zod Wallop is not a predictable book–it steadfastly refuses to toe the line of any one genre, going through thriller, fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mainstream in the course of its pages. I would not call it slipstream either, because it doesn’t have a singular consistency of vision. The point is that it works, and in straight comparison to The Land of Laughs, it works better, because it works towards a resolution–one much more rewarding than Carroll’s first effort. Spencer still has some honing before his prose is as sharp as Carroll’s, specifically the Carroll of Bones of the Moon or After Silence, but Zod Wallop shows that he has the imagination and skills to be in the same league.

[Finished 1996]

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